Innovation Award: The Owners of Elemental@Gasworks

Honoring culinary creativity and daring that inspire the continued evolution of the Puget Sound dining scene.

Simply walking into Elemental@Gasworks can cause a little anxiety. With only five tables, a few bar stools, and a collection of chairs loosely grouped into a lounge, seating is at a premium and, since the restaurant takes no reservations, comes at a cost—either a long wait or a rush to show up at 5 p.m. for cocktail hour and dibs on a table. Once you lay claim to one of the coveted spots at this restaurant, a pristine meal and unique brand of service presented by owners Phred Westfall and Laurie Riedeman awaits, at a very fair price. Laurie runs the kitchen while husband Phred runs the front of the house as a one-man show. Their ambitious philosophy of service is to have the customer sit back, relax, and let them take care of things. As a diner at Elemental, you will get no stewardesslike tour through the menu. In fact, you will not see a menu until Phred deems it appropriate. You will sit down to cucumber-tinged water and a little nip of something, maybe a tiny cocktail or an aperitif. Then you will pick what you want to eat, and Phred will bring it as he sees fit, with wines to match. Unsuspecting guests may view such practices as pushy or uncomfortable, wanting what they want, when they want it. When it opened two years ago, Elemental produced a gamut of reactions, from WTF to marvelous, until word of mouth and the press helped make the restaurant's objective more apparent. Today, Elemental's clientele seem to have made a conscious, informed choice to be there, to be open, and to let Phred and Laurie do their thing. The menu changes every Tuesday and arrives handwritten on a slab of polished aluminum, along with a flashlight for each guest. You may order any three courses for $38 (tax and gratuity are included, which make these prices all the more attractive). The food, whether classic or inventive, will be simple and clean. Laurie's palate leans toward comfort food, and even when the ingredients are more unusual, the flavors are self-evident. Taking an attitude like an English butler—your good time is his primary concern, but really, he does know best—Phred arranges the courses much like he arranges the wine, often splitting three courses into six or seven. And don't ask what you're drinking before you drink it: It's Phred's philosophy to let you use your own discriminating tastes without the baggage of labels. If that annoys you, you're insane. Wine pairing is a flat $24 per person, which often includes at least one wine, and sometimes two, with each plate of food. For that price, this wine wonk is happy to shut up and guess. How many restaurants are judged fair or fantastic based on what you order? That's not quite the case here. Some people expect transcendent food; it's not, but it is reliably fantastic and comforting. Some people require charts and graphs, whereas here it is best to be lost and then guided. What is most innovative about Elemental's approach to dining—and why we've chosen to present this award to Phred and Laurie—is that they apply the best concepts of underground restaurants (show up and eat what's cooked) with the best details of fine dining (pros making things appear and disappear as they think best). In the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

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